Compound words are formed by putting two characters together to create a single, new meaning. For example 中国zhongguo (China) separately they mean “middle” and “kingdom,” but by putting them together they take on a new meaning. We can take it a step further and say 中国人zhongguoren(Chinese person), or 中国菜zhongguocai (Chinese food). Now the vocabulary is growing, for 7 words we’ve had to learn 4 characters. Now I can teach you one more character 美mei(beautiful), but we can make 美国meiguo(America), 美国人meiguoren(American person), and 美国菜meiguocai(American food). So now we are at 5 characters, but 11 words.
This is to say that for each character you learn how to write, your vocabulary can grow much quicker. The 750 most common Chinese characters, make a vocabulary of over 1,300 words.
Another fun aspect of compound words is that you can often guess the new meaning if you know the parts. The following list has eight words broken into their literal parts from Chinese, see if you can match them with the proper translation.
So characters like 科ke(science) and 电dian(electricity) can help you start to guess the meaning of more and more vocabulary.
The new word is thought of as a single unit, just like in English when we hear television we think TV, we don’t think Tele- distant, vision- sight. I just find it a useful way of remembering vocabulary.
A final bonus to Chinese is that unlike English, Chinese doesn’t have a “science” vocabulary. We say “Cardio” when we mean “heart” in Chinese they just have “心xin”. So even though I have never studied medical Chinese, I can almost always guess the meaning.
So let’s review what we’ve learned over these past few days. 1. Tones for the most part don’t matter 2. Pronunciation of every word can be learned in a few hours 3. Chinese grammar is easy 4. A few characters are pictures 5. Most characters are made of a radical (for meaning) and another part (for pronunciation) 6. Compound words help your vocabulary grow quickly 7. Often you can guess the meaning of compound words.
Now go impress your friends with your new-found knowledge of a language you may have known nothing about three days ago.
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